Mottainai, Kintsugi, Sakiori — the environmental movement has a lot to learn from Japanese culture

Tabitha Whiting
3 min readMay 26, 2021
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

With growing awareness of the environmental consequences of consumer-driven, wasteful, modern lifestyles has come new approaches to encouraging people to repair and reuse before buying anew.

Libraries of Things enable us to borrow seldom-used items for a fraction of the price. The right to repair law is set to be reintroduced in the UK. Zero waste shops encourage refilling of household items to cut packaging use.

In Japan, though, these notions of repairing and reusing are part and parcel of the culture and way of life. Central to this is the long-held philosophy of ‘wabi-sabi’ — a term which is impossible to translate, but roughly relates to finding beauty in imperfection.


Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with golden joins (‘kin’ = gold, ‘tsugi’ =joinery). Through this technique something which was broken takes on a new beauty, with the repaired cracks themselves becoming the focus of the art.

Legend has it that Kintsugi dates back to 15th century Japan. Shogun (military dictator) Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favourite ceramic tea bowl, and had it sent to China to be repaired. It was returned fixed, but done so with ugly metal staples. He was inspired to find a more elegant repairing solution, and so Kintsugi was created.


Photo by VIBHUTI GUPTA on Unsplash

Sakiori is a traditional Japanese style of weaving. Used or worn fabrics are torn apart into strips or rags, and worn into new cloths and fabrics (usually alongside strips of hemp or cotton) which can be used for clothing or household textiles such as rugs.

The practice is thought to have originated through Japanese peasants as a way to produce new cloth and items even where new cloth was scarce.

Similarly to Kintsugi, the particular beauty of Sakiori is that the age or worn nature of the old fabric becomes, in itself, part of the beauty of the new piece, with the old and new woven together.


Photo by Radowan Nakif Rehan on Unsplash

Mottainai literally translates as ‘essence’, and is an ancient Buddhist term which relates to having respect for the resources around you, using them with gratitude and never wasting them. It can be likened to the phrase ‘what a waste’, portraying a sense of regret over wastefulness. It stems from the belief that all objects have souls, and so should be treated respectfully and not discarded without thought.

Mottainai manifests itself in all kinds of situations, but is particularly often heard around food — with children brought up never to waste food.

The term is almost the ancient version of today’s zero waste mantra of ‘repair, reuse, recycle’, ensuring nothing is ever wasted unnecessarily. It has also been adopted by Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who wore a t-shirt imprinted with the word ‘mottainai’ to an event at the United Nations. She was using the term as part of her advocacy for the effective use of limited resources and the need to protect our environment and resources.

Read next: These Words Perfectly Describe Our Relationship With Nature, But They Don’t Exist in English



Tabitha Whiting

Exploring the good and the bad of climate change communication and sustainability marketing 🌱